Gene imagines homelessness in Victoria solved—and then how it happened. Tweaks to the plan welcome!
WHATEVER HAPPENED to your better homeless?
Remember? They would stand at the street-corner, cap (or cup) in outstretched hand, portraits in noble suffering, their sight fixed on a better tomorrow. They had fallen on hard times and would respectfully ask and show thanks for your generosity; and if you gave, you gave to a brother or sister in the human family.
The homeless today—their presence in and impact upon the public realm—disturb us. They symbolize not shared social hardship but chaos, a social cancer, in a city that yearns for order and stability. They make a lie of our conceit of community and puncture our grounds for self-congratulation. They conspicuously remind us that we no longer live in string of charming little hamlets, but in a modern, increasingly impersonal city or, to invoke the ultimate Victoria horror, a place just like every other city.
“Home” is a powerful symbol and it exerts a deep tug on our feelings and values. You might think we would do almost anything, invest whatever financial and social resources it took, to move the homeless from our streets and parks, to house them.
But the condition remains, un-budging, and the realities both on the social investment and spending side and on the side of the homeless themselves result in collisions and a nearly paralyzing complexity at almost every level.
First, consider that while we use the term “homeless,” it masks the fact that the un-housed are, in too many cases, something-plus homeless, something-before-homeless: mentally ill and homeless, impoverished and rendered homeless, addicted and homeless, unskilled or uneducated and homeless, culturally adrift and discarded and homeless.
No less an eminence than Reverend Al Tysick, a man who has for a lifetime been on the front lines of compassionate service delivery to the homeless at the faith-initiated Open Door, Our Place and Dandelion Society, states that we band-aid the homeless situation without ever aligning our response to the true causes and conditions of homelessness. Grant McKenzie, communications director of Our Place, quoted in a recent Times Colonist article, echoes Tysick’s concerns, highlighting mental illness and addiction as the two greatest challenges to successful housing and service delivery.
Homeless people camped along Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford)
We have de-institutionalized—in some cases with good cause—but have left a vacuum that contemporary, more atomized society with its numerous priorities, preoccupations and problems appears nearly helpless to fill. Equally telling is that much of the social response to homelessness comes from non-profits of various kinds, which forces you to wonder: if the various societies and non-profits that currently do such an extraordinary job on the front lines of this social calamity didn’t exist, what would take their place?
None of this makes “housing first” an outright lie—after all, people need sustenance and shelter every day, especially during Victoria’s long inclement winter season—but it reveals the complications and impediments, including reluctance by many of the homeless to be warehoused, managed, distanced from mates and familiar turf, even if the turf is made of concrete.
Nothing prepared contemporary society for either the scope or the nature of today’s homeless. Most of us retreat and, with a shrug, regard the homeless street presence as a price to be paid. We simply skirt Pandora Avenue, objectify, and wonder why they—the mayor, the Province, Trudeau, the UN—don’t do something about it. Of course, the homeless are not something apart from society, not a dead branch on a living tree, but an expression of society itself, despite our tendency, reinforced by anecdote and news story, to view otherwise.
It’s important to understand that the homeless condition is pandemic, local in all places. You have only to read the news to learn that every city in North America is swamped and more or less solution-less. Downtowns, if you read the hyperbole, are turning, or have turned, into “jungles.” A recent New York Times piece about the impacts of homelessness and poverty in sweet, little Burlington, Vermont (population: 45,000) cites increased crime, violence and even murder, along with an epidemic of brazen bicycle thefts (the bikes and bike parts are sold for drug money).
The title of a television news piece about central Portland, Oregon? “From Wonderful to War Zone.”
A recent letter in the Times Colonist, “Origins of the homeless should be counted,” questioned the method and accuracy of the bi-annual homeless count, noting that Victoria isn’t necessarily the “home,” so much as the destination, for many un-housed who arrive here from across the country. The letter suggests that we significantly undercount homeless numbers, and it calls for greater financial and other forms of investment by all levels of government in a countrywide strategy of local needs-meeting as the only way to manage Victoria’s homeless numbers and challenges. “Various levels of government [need to] work together to provide standard levels of care, support and legal regulation across the country.”
Great idea. Let’s just wait around for that to happen. Shouldn’t take long.
The well-meaning letter makes reasonable points, though it tiptoes past the fact that gainful employment, assets and a fixed mailing address, while nice-to-haves, are not conditions of civic occupancy. And by a logic equally clear to the housed and the homeless: why be out on the street in the Red Deer winter when you can simply dodge the raindrops in Victoria?
Another recent TC letter placed the responsibility for indiscriminate homeless tenting on streets and in parks on a 2008 court ruling that established the “right to security of life, liberty and security of person.” Labelling the homeless a threat, the letter-writer asks: What about the wider public’s rights to the same securities?
Now, there’s a helpful attitude guaranteed to result in big changes, don’t you think?
How did we get from Pete Seeger (“Guantanamera”)—With the poor of the earth / Conlos pobres de la tierra / I want my luck to cast / Quiero yo mi suerte echar / I will die facing the sun / Moriré de cara al sol—to the peevish sentiments of that letter? Wasn’t the world supposed to be perfect by now?
Too many right turns, huh?
There’s an interesting connection between public attitudes about homelessness and the level of public trust in the state to successfully manage the condition. What I take from online commentary and coffee chat is that there is diminished public confidence that the state can handle this (or any other) social dilemma. But a consequence is that the state lacks citizen challenge or push to innovate, and the public won’t, through increased taxation or support for spending priorities, give the state what it needs to address homeless housing and related social health concerns.
The conventional leave-the-problem-for-somebody-else-to-solve approach appears to be exhausted. It “outsides” homelessness and seeks bureaucratic responses to what is very much a community existential concern.
I’d like to propose an exercise. Imagine homelessness in Victoria almost completely eliminated, imagine the problem solved: people housed, rehabilitation and social return efforts underway, and so on. Then, work your way back from that result to how, step-by-step, it was achieved. Who did what? Then what happened next? Take it all the way back to the forms and scope of public behaviour and support required for action. In other words, build a reverse blueprint for success.
New Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto claims that the most successful housing comprises groups of a dozen to fifteen. Commission our architectural community to design a small, standardized living component—a 200 square-foot module, say—contained within a 12- to 15-unit houseplex with common area and space for a resident manager to help occupants and ensure order.
The city and surrounding municipalities have available property which can be used on a land cost-free basis and, with appropriate sweeteners, owners of private property in appropriate areas also may be open to land use deals.
It’s my estimate that between 50 and 75 such properties would be required, at a likely capital cost of $40-60 million, with $10 million more in annual operating costs. Create a couple, work out the bugs, then create more.
Is this the best plan? Is there something better? Please! I’m accustomed to having my ideas vastly improved by others.
Eager to make sure my facts were straight, I sent a draft of this column to Reverend Al Tysick. He concurred with everything but, with my “something better” on his mind, rejected the idea of designated housing, with its ghetto overtones, calling instead for full social integration.
Jesus Christ speaking through Reverend Al.
Leaving methodology to my betters, then, this I know: end homelessness, and teams from every other city will flock here to learn how we did it.
Poet Vachel Lindsay is credited with this profundity: “to live in mankind is far better than to live in name.” End homelessness in Victoria, and we just might be a community, a human family, again, linked and re-humanized by an extraordinary and meaningful social accomplishment.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.